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History & Traditions

In 1850, Frederick William Gunn, educator, prominent abolitionist, and outdoorsman, along with his wife, Abigail Brinsmade Gunn, founded The Gunnery on a hilltop in bucolic in Washington, Connecticut. For more than 170 years, their school has flourished by standing squarely on the ideals of its founders: intellectual strength, moral courage, physical rigor and character.

Today, there are reminders all around us of Mr. Gunn’s legacy. Most are not as tangible as a school building or a sepia-colored photograph but have shown to be even more lasting. Mr. Gunn’s philosophy of education, with its emphasis on character development, curiosity and independent thinking, remains relevant today. What was regarded as iconoclastic at the time has proven to be universal. Today’s Gunnery graduates are not only prepared but eager to face the challenges of the 21st century and to realize their full potential as members of the global community.

A Vanguard of Education

Mr. Gunn served as the school’s first headmaster from 1850 to 1881. During his tenure:

  • He led students on the first all-school walk from Washington to Milford in 1861, which led to his recognition by the American Camping Association as the founder of recreational camping in the United States

  • He welcomed girls, African-American, Native American and international students to his school in defiance of social norms.

  • He installed the first lending library in Washington, Connecticut, in his living room, where local citizens periodically gathered. The right to borrow books was auctioned off to provide funds for the acquisition of more books. A group of citizens and former Gunnery students later raised funds to build the Gunn Memorial Library, which was dedicated in 1908. The architect was Ehrick Rossiter, Class of 1870, the contractor was Dallas Wyant, Class of 1902, and the fieldstone for the facade was brought from nearby farms by Gunnery students.

  • He served as an early proponent of physical activity and participation in sports as a building block of character development. Worth noting: The Gunnery archives include the first known photograph of a baseball game in progress. Featured in Ken Burns’s documentary and book, “Baseball,” it was taken by Seth C. Landon on August 4, 1869, during the first Gunnery alumni reunion.

  • A staunch member of the temperance movement, he believed that his students had “an inalienable right to their fun.” To that end, he organized dances, musical events, debates and plays for his students and town residents. Yearly plays were produced, which led to the establishment of Washington’s amateur theater group, the Dramalites. 

  • He often reiterated that one needed to have a “boy-heart” to understand and teach the young. His students recounted that he was always the first one selected when they were choosing sides for a student game. He would call a day off from recitations and accompany the children on nature walks during the glorious seasonal days of spring and fall. 

  • An early proponent of student government, his graduates wrote letters about his Sunday family meetings, which allowed boys to expose culprits who threatened the peace of the school as well as to determine what rules were important to keep. 

An Advocate of Athletics, and Baseball

Frederick Gunn was an early proponent of athletics and physical exercise as an essential component of a successful educational curriculum and character development.

  • Every Gunnery scholar had to belong to a baseball “nine,” as the teams were called.

  • Students played an early form of hockey, called “shinney,” and a form of football that more closely resembled rugby.

  • Mr. Gunn particularly enjoyed baseball and Clarence Deming, Class of 1866, who went on to become a sportswriter of some note, reflected on his athletic ability in “The Master of The Gunnery,” writing: “He played thrower and catcher with equal facility, and he was famous for the unerring precision with which at long distances he hit the base-runner.”

  • Gunn Scholar Mark Rhoads ’04 brought to light how important baseball was to The Gunnery through his research on the first photograph of a baseball game in progress, now held in the Paul and George Krimsky ’60 Archives and Special Collections. The photograph was taken on August 4, 1869, during the first Gunnery alumni reunion.

  • The first team of nine was established even earlier, in the 1850s. They played on the village green.

  • The Gunnery was among the first of the Yankee villages to adopt the “New York” game governed by the Knickerbocker rules due to the school’s connection with the Van Cott family. Judge William H. Van Cott was President of the National Association of Baseball Players and played professionally for the New York Mutuals from Mount Vernon. His three boys, Daniel, William Jr. and Leonard, were students at The Gunnery in the late 1850s. All three played baseball and Daniel started as a shortstop in the first alumni weekend game versus New Milford, depicted in the 1869 photograph.

  • Also playing for Gunnery in that “grand” match in 1869: John Brinsmade, an alumnus who was at that time in college but would later marry Fred and Abigail’s daughter, and become the school’s second headmaster. Writing in the Stray Shot in June 1908, Brinsmade said: “Baseball, the national game, was played here as early as in any place, outside of a few large cities … The Gunnery was playing the national game with out-of-town clubs before Yale and Harvard had begun their matches.”

The Abolitionist

Mr. Gunn’s willingness to stand up for his convictions and risk his livelihood, his marriage and his home to stand against slavery is well known in the town of Washington. Returning home following his graduation from Yale in 1837, he started Washington Academy and was living in a two-story farmhouse owned by his sister. 

Around this time, however, Washington was in a fever of excitement over the antislavery movement. Often called the “Georgia of New England,” Connecticut primarily supported the preservation of the Union rather than the abolition of slavery, but the northwest corner of the state was an exception. A few men had seen the evils of slavery and started a movement for its abolition. Mr. Gunn’s older brother, John, who raised him after their parents passed away in 1826, was a longtime vocal abolitionist and was known to facilitate the movement of slaves through the Underground Railroad. Two other prominent abolitionists were John’s brother-in-law, Lewis Canfield, and Daniel Platt.

Washington was a station on the ‘underground railroad,’ and the occasional discovery of a negro at or near the house of some abolitionist was sufficient evidence that the Fugitive Slave Law was deliberately violated by the concealing and assisting of escaping slaves. Many were the meetings held at Mr. Gunn’s room and elsewhere, attended only by a few of the more daring abolitionists, in which plans were discussed and matured by which the fleeing bondman was shielded from pursuit and aided in his flight toward Canada and liberty.

Senator Orville H. Platt, “The Master of The Gunnery”

At this time, abolitionists were still a minority and Pastor Gordon Hayes of the Congregational Church insisted on biblical justifications of slavery. In 1839, Abbey Kelly, a prominent abolitionist lecturer, was invited to speak at the meeting house by the Washington abolitionists. The congregation was in an uproar and the minister delivered a stinging sermon. John Gunn spoke out against the church’s behavior and was consequently excommunicated from the church. Fearing his livelihood would be compromised by his brother’s radical activities, Frederick Gunn cautiously urged moderation. 

Mr. Gunn never avoided the conflict. Public meetings were the special method of spreading abolition principles. Lecturers from abroad, men of rare eloquence, expounded the great truths of freedom … All these meetings, held within a radius of several miles, were attended and promoted by Mr. Gunn. ‘Mob law’ was then not unfrequent. Many of the abolitionists were non-resistants, but Mr. Gunn was not. He was exceptionally strong and active … Men respected his physical strength and courage if they did not his convictions.

"The Master of the Gunnery"

Around this time, Mr. Gunn began reading abolitionist tracts provided by his brother and was converted to the cause. In 1843, he visited his two sisters in Goldsboro, North Carolina, where he stayed at his brother-in-law’s plantation. There he experienced an active and functional slavery system, which confirmed his opinion of the immorality of the culture. Back in Washington, Mr. Gunn of the abolitionist movement. However, due to the church’s influence, the number of students in his school declined, and attendance dwindled to include only the children of abolitionists.

Whenever men met, abolition and the abolitionist were the topics of talk; and whenever the subject was broached in his presence, he took up the cudgels in their behalf. Of course it was to ruin his school. In 1843, the number of his pupils was reduced to eleven – all, I think, children of abolitionists.

Senator Orville H. Platt, "The Master of the Gunnery"

Unable to earn a living in Washington, Mr. Gunn left his home and his fiancé in 1847 and moved to Towanda, Pennsylvania. He began teaching at Towanda Academy and wrote numerous letters home to Abigail Brinsmade, expressing his abolitionist convictions and detailing his experiences teaching African American students. Their correspondence is now included in the Paula and George Krimsky Archives and Special Collections at The Gunnery. While his in-laws were sympathetic to the abolitionist movement, and Mr. Gunn’s role in it, as prominent members of the Washington community and the church, they were unwilling to sanction the marriage and actively denounce the church’s position.

As the controversy regarding the Fugitive Slave Act raged in the late 1840s, the tide of public opinion shifted, and the church’s position became more moderate. Any abolitionists who were excommunicated were invited back into the community, ushering in an era of relative serenity. Daniel Brinsmade convinced Mr. Gunn to return with Abigail and their son, and further arranged a land trade in 1849 that provided a house where they could live and establish a school. Based on Mr. Gunn’s reputation as a school teacher, several nationally prominent abolitionists sent their children to The Gunnery, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Ward Beecher, John Fremont and the Jervis and Olivia Langdon family of Elmira, New York, whose daughter married Samuel Clemens. In addition, in the 1850s, Mr. Gunn welcomed his Native American cousins-in-law from the family of Elias Boudinot and Harriet Ruggles Gold, and in the 1870s, he participated in the Chinese Educational Mission, which brought four students from China to The Gunnery. 

Following Mr. Gunn’s death in 1881, Senator Orville Platt recounted in “The Master of The Gunnery” how he did not set his principles aside when he founded The Gunnery, and in fact, continued to provide leadership in the local Underground Railroad movement. 

Mr. Gunn never denied his violation of the Fugitive Slave law. He asserted his obligation to obey ‘the higher law’ of a common brotherhood. He gloried in whatever obloquy attached to him for being true to humanity in disregarding an inhuman and barbarous enactment.

"The master of the Gunnery"

During a visit to the school in February 2000, Carl Westmoreland, then-External Affairs Director of The Underground Railroad Freedom Society in Cincinnati, Ohio, commented: “When the tide of public opinion changes, it is rare for the community to welcome back to its midst the ostracized party who reminds them of their prior errors. It is even rarer for that party to be offered a leadership position in the ‘new’ movement. The fact that Washington did those things speaks well for the community and also for Mr. Gunn.”

Nature as Educator

In the early days of the school, when the weather was particularly nice, Mr. Gunn would declare a school holiday and lead his students on walks through the woods, which became their classroom.

On these tramps, those who were fortunate enough to keep close to Mr. Gunn were filled with information about every bird and animal, tree and flower. The name and purpose of every natural object, the habits and haunts of every living thing seemed stored away in his mind and always at his command, and he loved especially to help his boys on to something of the same knowledge. A bird’s egg found by some sharp-eyed youngster, and borne up to Mr. Gunn in triumph, would call forth a chapter upon ornithology; and thus we all grew into closer relations with nature and her ways.

"The Master of the Gunnery"

His students recounted times when the whole school camped at Steep Rock in the summer. In 1861, he led 30 boys and a dozen girls on a 40-mile walk from Washington to Welch’s Point in Milford, Connecticut, on Long Island Sound, where they camped for 10 days and performed military drills in preparation for their service in the Union Army. The students called in “gipsying.”

In the 1870s, the school shifted its focus closer to home, establishing a summer camp at Point Beautiful on Lake Waramaug. The lake’s “nearer waters, good fishing, and picturesque shores made it an ideal spot for a summer’s holiday,” Mr. Gunn’s students wrote in “The Master of The Gunnery.”

The whole school, along with friends and colleagues of Mr. Gunn, populated the camp, participating in activities that included hunting, fishing, boating and swimming. According to his biographers, students would wake to a morning bugle call, followed by a second call for breakfast, and a later call for “Family Meeting,” which was conducted under a large elm. The boys listened to “words of advice and caution” from Mr. Gunn, who appointed “a committee to take charge of the swimmers,” captains for each boat, and two squads, one to supply wood for the campfire, and one to fetch fresh water from a nearby spring. These summer camps were discontinued when the school year was altered to include a longer summer vacation instead of an extended winter break, but it is because of these activities that the American Camping Association credits Mr. Gunn as the founder of recreational camping in the United States.

Traditions

Convocation

Faculty and students gather to formally open the school year with a ceremony held in the Meeting House during the first week of school. The Head of School delivers a welcome address, the head prefect is introduced and delivers an address, and the top scholars from the previous academic year are announced for each class. The Convocation Address is delivered by the faculty member who is named as the recipient of the annual Class of ’55 Distinguished Teacher Award for Emerging Excellence. In addition, the holders of our endowed chairs are introduced. New faculty are appointed to each of these positions every three years:

  • The Wallace Rowe Chair in Critical Expression

  • The Tisch Chair for Excellence in Teaching

  • The Hamilton Gibson Chair for Humanities

  • The Noto Family Chair for Dedicated Service

  • The Anne and Henry Zarrow Chair for Math and Science

School Walk

  • This tradition was begun by Frederick Gunn himself, who in 1861 led students on an extended walk to Milford, where they camped for several days. It is for this reason that Mr. Gunn is credited as the founder of recreational camping in the United States.

  • In 1886, five years after Mr. Gunn’s death, the first commemorative all-school walk was instituted by his son-in-law and the second Head of School, John Brinsmade.

  • The occasion carries with it a sense of ceremony. Often the walks have begun with the laying of a wreath at his gravesite in St. John’s Cemetery, or a member of the faculty will read from Mr. Gunn’s writings about nature before the group sets out.

  • The actual route and destination also have varied over the years, yet the premise has remained the same.

  • Today the whole community – students, faculty, staff, and sometimes alumni, family and friends – gathers to participate in a six to eight-mile hike through the 998-acred Steep Rock Preserve to the summit (at an elevation of 776 feet) overlooking the Clamshell of the Shepaug River Valley, and back to campus on a date selected as close to possible to Frederick Gunn’s birthday on October 4.

  • Often, the actual date of the walk has been kept secret for the fun of surprising students with a day off from classes.

  • Students in Outdoor Stewardship set the course in advance and faculty monitor progress at checkpoints along the route

  •  The festivities conclude with a picnic lunch. 

Founders Day Regatta

 In 1959, Katherine Conroy of Washington bestowed upon the school’s longtime crew coach Rod Beebe a gift of $5,000 to establish the Founder’s Day Regatta, and a large sterling silver trophy, originally called the Founder’s Cup.

  • In the inaugural race, 60 boys from The Gunnery, Choate and Haverford raced over a three-quarter-mile course on the New Preston side of Lake Waramaug, and The Gunnery won the cup.

  • With the advent of coeducation at The Gunnery in 1978, girls teams participated in the regatta for the first time, rowing a 1,000-meter course. That same year, the race course was moved from the New Preston side of the lake to Lake Waramaug State Park, and the regatta expanded to include teams from eight schools.

  • By its 50th anniversary year, Founder’s Day had become the largest one-day youth fours regatta in New England, drawing more than 1,400 rowers who competed on behalf of some two dozen high school and boat club teams from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio and Rhode Island. 

  • In 2019, the school celebrated the 60th anniversary of Founder’s Day, the second longest-running high school regatta in New England after the New England championships on Lake Quinsigamond.

  • Spectators  pitch colorful school tents along the shore and cheer on their teams for a day of racing in coxed four shells.

Six decades after it began, Founder’s Day continues to be an outstanding day of competition and sportsmanship, as well as a celebration of our student athletes and the sport of rowing.

lincoln Turner, Boys Head Rowing coach

Commencement and Prize Night

  • In late May, on the evening before commencement exercises, the entire school gathers under the tent on Wersebe Field for the awarding of about 50 prizes celebrating character, leadership, athletic, artistic and academic excellence.

  • While the majority of the awards on Prize Night are presented to graduating seniors, there are opportunities for underclassmen to be recognized for their contributions and achievements.

  • The following morning, students and faculty line up outside Bourne Hall for a procession led by bagpipers and two of the newly elected prefects, who carry the American flag and the school flag.  Students from the freshman, sophomore and junior classes are followed by the faculty and graduates, as the entire school makes its way across campus to the tent on Wersebe Field for the ceremony.

  • The head prefect and head prefect-elect both deliver speeches prior to the Commencement Address.

  • The school’s top three prizes – The Brinsmade Prize, The Head of School’s Prize, and The Gunnery Cup – are awarded, and finally, with the blessing of the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, diplomas are conferred upon the graduates. 

  • Although students under Frederick Gunn participated in celebrations at the end of the school year, John Brinsmade, the second Head of School,  is credited with implementing The Gunnery’s first graduation exercises.

  • The first formal invitation in the Paula and George Krimsky Archives and Special Collections is dated 1921. The exercises were held in the gymnasium and the address was given by W.W. Ellsworth whose topic was “Choosing Life’s Work.”

  • The awarding of diplomas was mentioned in a 1924 invitation under Hamilton Gibson, and 14 prizes were announced at the same time, including the highest scholars in each class and one available scholarship of $300. THere were seven seniors in the graduating class.

Investiture and Clash of the Colors

In the 2000s, a change in the academic schedule was adopted, deferring final exams for underclassmen until after Commencement. This change allows underclassmen to celebrate with their senior friends before exam week. Two events were also added to the schedule to raise students’ spirits and celebrate the status of rising sophomores, juniors and seniors.

  • Investiture is a formal meeting attended by the entire school, with the exception of the seniors who have graduated. The student leaders for the coming school year are announced, including prefects, tour guides and resident advisors, and other changes, including faculty responsibilities and titles, are announced. 

  • Clash of the Colors is a far less formal event, in which each of the rising classes forms a team and competes in a series of outdoor games and contests. Teams dress in their class color (and may even paint their faces) and enjoy a day of friendly competition, school spirit and camaraderie.

Washington Day

The newest tradition at The Gunnery was a gift to students established by Head of School Peter Becker in 2013.

  • On learning about Mr. Gunn’s penchant for declaring an impromptu school holiday on a perfect outdoor day, Mr. Becker decided that the doldrums of Connecticut’s long winters could be alleviated in the weeks before spring vacation by creating “Washington Day” in honor of our first President and our town.

  • Thus, a tradition was born in which Mr. Becker raises a school flag upside down on the flagpole on a bright day in February. The students are excused from classes and have a day to themselves for sleeping in or building a snowman or having an impromptu snowball fight.

School Government and School Meetings

The tradition of School Meeting, which today provides an opportunity for the entire community to gather three times per week, and student leadership opportunities, most notably the prefects and head prefect elected annually by students and faculty, evolved from the practices established by Mr. Gunn.

  • Mr. Gunn was an early proponent of student participation in the governance of the school. In the 1850s, he held “family meetings” every Sunday evening after dinner. Students were encouraged to seek solutions to the disciplinary, logistical or academic issues of the week. 

  • Clarence Deming, who graduated in the Class of 1866 and went on to Yale and a career in journalism, wrote in “The Master of The Gunnery” that: “A school, in Mr. Gunn’s theory and largely in his practice, was a mimic republic … The scholars were to him embryo citizens, interested in the weal [well-being] of the school community, and each charged, as an individual, with the duty of conserving it.”

  • Subsequent heads of school continued to gather the community together for chapel in the Meeting House on the Green. These gatherings were moved after 1958 to the chapel in Bourne Hall. Both students and faculty were invited to speak about issues of community concern.

  • With the rise of a more culturally diverse student body, the term “chapel” was dropped and the bi-weekly meeting became more secular in nature.

  • Today’s School Meetings are run by the prefects who, through their leadership, can set the tone for the entire school year. “The position of prefect,” said Prefect Ben Greenfield ’07, “is neither defined by the dictionary nor The Gunnery faculty, but solely by the students holding the title.” His classmate, Head Prefect Sean Kelly ’07, dubbed the prefects “the voice of the students.” During their yearlong tenure, they have an opportunity to listen, to implement change, to strive for unity, to create community and to give back through their service. 

Scottish Heritage

  • Frederick Gunn’s ancestors, the Gunn clan, hailed from the far northern reaches of Scotland and claim to have descended from the Norse Earls of Orkney, who centered around the Scottish city of Caithness. 

  • Jasper Gunn was the progenitor of the Gunn family in the new world. He sailed from Scotland aboard the ship Defence and arrived in Massachusetts in 1635. He and his wife were among the first settlers in Milford, Connecticut, and he was the first doctor there. His great-great-great grandson, Samuel Gunn III, moved to Washington, Connecticut, where his grandson, Frederick Gunn, was born in 1816. 

  • Mr. Gunn’s heritage is represented today in The Gunnery formal dress, which includes the Gunn tartan, and the school’s athletic teams, the  Highlanders. 

  • The Gunnery’s story has been shared with the Clan Gunn Heritage Centre & Museum in Latheron, Scotland, which has been visited by several faculty members. The school maintains contact with the center, as well as the Clan Gunn Society of North America.

The School Crest

  • The first Gunnery crest was that of the Gunn clan. It featured a Scottish sword in a clenched fist and with the Latin motto, Aut Pax, Aut Bellum, Either Peace or War. 

  • Headmaster Ogden D. Miller H'69 P'50 '54 '55 formalized and redesignated the crest to include a heraldic motto, Vir Bonus Semper Discipulus Est, A Good Man is Always a Learner, which appeared on a ribbon below the shield.

  • In the 1990s, Roger Netzer ’71 had his son restate it to include women when he made a presentation to his Legal Society.

  • In the 2000s, under the aegis of Head of School Susan Graham, Andrew Sacks ’86 and his firm helped the school design a more modern version of the crest with the motto imprinted on the shield.

The Gunn Pine

  • The Gunn Pine (actually a Norway Spruce) appears on The Gunnery Crest designed in the 1940s as a symbol of the natural beauty of the campus and the living growth of learning.

  • The actual tree is said to have been planted at the first reunion in 1869 by Mr. Gunn, and an examination of the tree’s rings indicated the planting occurred about that time. 

  • The tree stood behind the original Gunnery building (torn down in 1928 and replaced by Gunn Dorm) until 1993, when it fell during a blizzard.

  • A new Norway Spruce was planted in its place, and dedicated in the spring of 1994. It still stands near Gunn Dorm and during the winter holidays, the iconic tree is decorated with white lights.

  • During the sesquicentennial celebration in 2000-01, School Archivist Paula Krimsky, with the help of students of then-History Department Chair Julia Ailing ’81 P’19, plotted the history of The Gunnery, the history of the United States, and the history of the world on the rings of a circular slab of the tree that had been preserved. The project is now housed in the Paula and George Krimsky Archives and Special Collections.

Senior Rock

  • Though the origins of this tradition are not known, it is said that the large boulder in front of Gunn Dorm can only be touched or climbed by seniors.

  • The plaque on the rock has an inscription dedicating the campus to the third Headmaster, William Hamilton Gibson, who built the quad with architect Richard Henry Dana and philanthropist Adrian Van Sinderen in the 1920s and 1930s.

  • Seniors have traditionally used the rock as a place to gather, play or study and assemble there for a class photo each spring in attire representing the college or university to which they have been accepted.

The Stray Shot

  • The “Stray Shot” was the name of a monthly publication that made its debut in March 1884. It was the school newspaper, literary journal, alumni bulletin, and for a time, the town’s newspaper.

  • In 1959, the editor of the “Stray Shot,” Thomas Roderick Dew ’59, donated a 200-pound Civil War cannon ball, about the size of a beach ball. His father purchased it from an antique store and donated to the school in honor of his graduation.

  • This “Stray Shot” has become a source of frustration and amusement for generations of Gunnery students who have taken up the annual challenge of hiding and finding the cannon ball across and around campus.

  • The third iteration of the ball is estimated to weigh 90 pounds and is about the size of a soccer ball.

  • Over the years, it has been rolled down the Green Hill, lost in a pond, hidden in snow banks and fireplaces, buried, and soldered to walls, amidst shenanigans, mayhem, and intrigue, according to longtime School Archivist Paula Krimsky, who was equally challenged to document the history of this beloved tradition. 

  • In the game today, the holders of the ball (traditionally seniors) carve their initials in the iron and lead teams of searchers (traditionally underclassmen) through a series of cleverly designed clues based upon the campus and school history.

  • The team in possession of the Stray Shot at the end of the school year begins the game over again the following year.